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date: 11 August 2020

athletics, late antiquity

Summary and Keywords

Whereas chariot races gained popularity in late antiquity, athletics declined. Traditional agones, such as the Olympics, disappeared in the course of the 4th and 5th centuries ce. The traditional explanation, that they were abolished by Theodosius I, is no longer widely accepted, as the imperial policy clearly remained positive towards games. Changes to the administration of the cities, which administered the funds of these games, must have had a stronger effect, as did the rise of new, and in particular Christian, values. The drive to compete in the individual competitions typical of Greek athletics can be linked to the ambition to excel that was typical of the earlier political culture, but which was increasingly perceived as a vain pursuit and replaced by an ideal of humility. Not all forms of athletics disappeared, however, as the spread of circus games created new opportunities for the demonstration of spectacular feats by athletes.

Keywords: athletics, agones, late antiquity, decline, Christianity

In the 2nd and 3rd centuries ce, inscriptions and coins document a vibrant tradition of athletics (see athletics, Greek) in the Roman Empire. There were hundreds of contests, or agones, organized by cities in Greece, Egypt, Syria and, in particular, Asia Minor.1 The participants were typically citizens from urban centres, mostly from among the wealthier layers of society who could send their children to the gymnasium to train intensively from an early age.2 The most talented among them could build a career, travelling from contest to contest, and become members of an professional association, the so-called xystic synod, which had headquarters in Rome.3 Athletic contests were also introduced in some cities in Italy, Southern Gaul, and Africa.4 Here, participating in public competitions did not form part of the elite culture, so the participants mostly came from Greek-speaking parts of the Empire. Here too, however, the contests were appreciated as entertainment and opportunities for euergetism, as were gladiatorial shows throughout the Empire and chariot-races in the Roman style throughout the West. In late antiquity, athletics declined, whereas chariot-races in the Roman style spread more widely, as documented by the wide spread of the circus and the growing importance of the circus factions of the Blues and the Greens in the Eastern Mediterranean.

The clearest indication for the decline is the disappearance of athletic contests in the course of the 4th and 5th centuries ce. The general evolution is hard to trace, as chronological and geographical patterns in our evidence are strongly influenced by external factors, such as the waning epigraphic habit and the end of provincial coinage in the late 3rd century ce, and the existence of clusters of prolific authors and of preserved mosaics in the 4th century (e.g., in Antioch and northern Africa). Explicit references to the end of specific contests are extremely rare, but the decrease in depictions of athletes as well as textual references to occasional restorations of discontinued contests (e.g. Cod. Theod. 15.7.3) suggest increasing difficulties in the second half of the 4th century.5 The last monument for an athlete was set up around 390 ce (CIL VI 10153), in the headquarters of the xystic synod in Rome. Just like several other agones, the Olympian games were held regularly throughout the 4th century. A scholium (Schol. in Lucianum 41.9.9–11) and changes to the site of Olympia suggest that this contest came to an end in the first half of the 5th century ce.6 The contest that seems to have survived longest was the local Olympian contest of Antioch, which was held for the last time in 520 ce (John Malalas 17.13).

The traditional explanation for the disappearance of athletic contests is that they were abolished by a Christian emperor. This ban has been connected to the anti-pagan laws of Theodosius I in 391–392 ce (Cod. Theod. 16.10.10–12) as well as to a constitution by Theodosius II in 435 ce (Cod. Theod. 16.10.25).7 As these laws do not mention agones and, moreover, the general policy of these emperors shows a positive attitude to games, this explanation is no longer widely accepted.8 Changes to the city administration represent an alternative explanatory factor. Within the large provinces of the early imperial period, the rivalry between cities had created an atmosphere conducive to the establishment of new contests; these were instituted at the initiative of members of the local elite, organized by city officials and financed by the proceeds of estates or funds earmarked for the games and managed by the city (e.g. SEG. XXXVIII 1462). Embassies were sent to the imperial court to apply for special statuses. This system depended on elites focussing their ambitions on the local community and on an institutional framework that left scope for local initiative. The creation of smaller provinces by Diocletian, coupled with an increasingly fixed hierarchy between secondary cities and provincial and diocesan capitals mitigated the competition for status between cities. Councils could no longer take initiatives with financial implications without the involvement of the imperial administration, and many members of the elites preferred not to focus their energy on local events. Prominent contests in capital cities—such as the Olympics of Antioch—continued to attract the attention of the powerful, but agones in minor cities experienced difficulties. Because the agonistic calendar was rationally designed (cf. SEG. LVI 1359) and enabled athletes to participate in the contests in one particular area in one round trip, the disappearance of a few contests from a local circuit would affect the appeal of the entire circuit.9

Another important factor contributing to the decline of athletics in late antiquity is the rise of new, and in particular Christian, values. Unlike other games such as chariot racing or fighting in the amphitheater, athletic contests attracted their participants from the citizens who could afford specialized training and to travel over large distances. The success of the international competitions for star athletes was firmly based in the urban gymnasium culture of the Eastern Mediterranean, which in turn depended on the compatibility of athletics with the values of the ruling classes. The fact that the victors of major games received privileges in their home cities (e.g., exemption from liturgies, front seats during public gatherings) confirms this association between athletics and citizenship. From the 3rd century ce on, the palaestra lost its prominence in gymnasia: this area for sports often became paved and hence unusable as a wrestling pit. It was no longer included in new bathing complexes.10 This shows the decreasing importance of practicing sports in daily life. The civic physical education system of the ephebeia (see epheboi) came to an end in the mid-4th century ce, private training somewhat later.11 This gradual loss of interest among the wealthier citizens can be linked to the decline of traditional virtues such as philotimia, the ambition to excel to which a training in individual sports could contribute, and the emergence of new virtues, such as asceticism and in particular humility, one of the central Christian virtues. References to athletic nudity, on the other hand, are surprisingly rare in the 4th and 5th-century Greek discourse on athletics.

Athletics did not disappear completely, however. In the West, there was a long tradition of including athletic performances in other shows. From the 4th century on, the spread of circus games in the eastern Mediterranean created new opportunities for the demonstration of athletic feats by specialized performers. Some of these were hired as a troupe for shows. Unlike the athletes of before, they did not carry prestigious titles that brought them privileges (e.g., Olympionikes, periodonikes), so this was no longer an interesting career path for the elite. Papyrus programs for 6th-century ce games document varied spectacles, with an alternation of acts including athletes, sometimes as an interlude between chariot races.12


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(1.) Wolfgang Leschhorn, “Die Verbreitung von Agonen in den östlichen Provinzen des römischen Reiches,” Stadion 24, no. 1 (1998): 31; the author counts more than 500 contests in imperial-age inscriptions and coins. As this number is lower than the number of poleis in the Eastern Mediterranean, and many cities are known to have had multiple contests, it seems safe to assume that this number represents less than half of the contests that actually existed.

(2.) Henri W. Pleket, “Zur Soziologie des antiken Sports,” Mededelingen van het Nederlands Instituut te Rome 36 (1974): 57–87 remains the standard study on the topic. For an updated edition in English, see Henri W. Pleket, “On the Sociology of Ancient Sport,” in Sport in the Greek and Roman Worlds: Vol. 2, Greek Athletics Identities and Roman Sports and Spectacle, ed. Thomas Scanlon, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), 29–81.

(3.) For this association see Bram Fauconnier, “The Organisation of Synods of Competitors in the Roman Empire,” Historia 66, no. 4 (2017): 442–467.

(4.) For Italy and Gaul see Maria Letizia Caldelli, L’Agon Capitolinus: Storia e protagonisti dall’ istituzione domizianea al IV secolo (Rome: Istituto Italiano per la Storia Antica, 1993); and Maria Letizia Caldelli, “Gli agoni alla greca nelle regioni occidentali dell’impero: La Gallia Narbonensis,” Atti della Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei 394 (1997): 387–481; for Africa, see Mustapha Khanoussi, “Les spectacles de jeux athlétiques et de pugilat dans l’Afrique romaine,” MDAI(R) 98 (1991): 315–322.

(6.) A bronze plate documenting several 4th century victors was discovered in the late 20th century excavations: SEG XLV 412. Changes to the site in the early 5th century are, for example, the construction of a Christian basilica in the so-called workshop of Pheidias, the lack of maintenance of the running track, and the removal of the famous statue of Zeus to Constantinople (cf. Tom Stevenson, “What Happened to the Zeus of Olympia?” Ancient History Bulletin 22, no. 1–2 (2007): 65–88.

(7.) The ban of Theodosius II is sometimes dated to 426 instead, because when the idea of a ban by Theodosius II was raised in the 19th century, the 17th century commentary on the Theodosian code by James Godefroy was still in use, which suggests 426 as a date for Cod. Theod. 16.10.25.

(9.) Sofie Remijsen, “The End of the Ancient Olympics and Other Contests: Why the Agonistic Circuit Collapsed in Late Antiquity,” Journal of Hellenic Studies 135 (2015): 147–164.

(10.) Fikret Yegül, Bathing in the Roman World (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2010): 181–183.

(11.) For a register of all references to the ephebeia see Nigel M. Kennell, Ephebeia: A Register of Greek Cities with Citizen Training Systems in the Hellenistic and Roman Periods (Hildesheim, Germany: Weidmann, 2006).

(12.) See, for example, POxy. XXXIV 2707; 79.5215. This survival of athletics as a show is corroborated by evidence from other regions, e.g. Cassiod. Var. 5.42.1, 5 for Italy. Cf. Katherine M. D. Dunbabin, “Athletes, Acclamations, and Imagery from the End of Antiquity,” Journal of Roman Archaeology 30 (2017): 151–174.

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